31st Sunday of Ordinary Time 2012
What is the first and greatest of the commandments? This question is put to Jesus by a learned scribe in today’s Gospel. The question does not seem intended as a trap for Jesus, but an honest inquiry by this good Pharisee who wants to know what Jesus’ position is on a question which caused divisions among the great rabbis of Israel. The rabbis generally agreed that the laws revealed to Israel in the Pentateuch numbered 613, 365 of which forbid certain actions and 248 which command certain actions. But surely there must be some underlying order to all these commandments that reveals a unity of purpose; there must be a commandment which was most fundamental and which gives order and unity to the rest. The rest would then be seen as simply spelling out the implications of that greatest commandment.
Evidently some rabbis held that the basic, underlying commandment was simply that one must live by faith – a good answer. Others held that the golden rule was the basic commandment – do unto your neighbor what you would have them do unto you – again a good answer, and Jesus himself would cite these as fundamental rules of His Kingdom. But his answer as to the most basic norm of all refers to the prayer the faithful Jew prayed every morning, taken from the Book of Deuteronomy in the passage we had for our first reading this morning:
Hear O Israel, The Lord our God is Lord alone! Therefore you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.
To this Jesus adds the Golden Rule, but expressed in terms of love:
This is the second, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
The scribe obviously agrees with joy to Jesus’ response, and Jesus tells him that his agreement brings him close, but not yet into His Kingdom.
This Gospel is for us also a summing up of the whole law of God and the way we must live our lives if we are to be members of His Kingdom. This supreme commandment reveals so wonderfully the truth about man and the truth about His relation to God and God’s Kingdom.
What is man, how are we to understand the basis of our dignity, the kind of absolute dignity we claim for the human person, even in our basic political documents? How can we justify the claims we make that every person has certain inviolable, inalienable rights as enumerated in our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution? Who says that man, every person, has such human rights? Ultimately, God does, and it can be seen in the two great commandments of love.
The greatness of the human person’s dignity can be established by two measures: what man’s true origin is and what the final end of every person is, what constitutes our final destiny.
Man was created by God and created in God’s image and likeness; that is the first measure of his inestimable dignity. Secondly, man is created for God, to enjoy God forever in heaven, and thus man is commanded to love God with his whole being, his whole mind, heart, soul, and strength, because that is itself the way back to our origin in God, but in a much more elevated state than that of our birth. God alone is man’s final end; man has been made for God.
Moreover, only God can be the true object of such a love. We have a void in our human souls a kind of infinite thirst for love – that is a given of human nature, a void that not only Christians but also non-Christian religious thinkers and philosophers have noted. But Christians also know that only the infinite God could ever satisfy this hunger for love in man. But God commands only what is possible for man, and so God alone can command us to love him with our whole being, to direct that infinite thirst for love on the infinite Being of God. But if man is the only creature on this earth who can love God in this total way, if man is made for God, then truly man has a dignity that must be respected above all other creatures in this world, and man will have a rightful claim to rights which are truly inviolable. So the great commandment is truly the foundation of the dignity of the human person and his or her human rights.
Moreover, the very way in which Jesus orders the two commandments of love is based upon the fact that God alone is the Lord and true fulfillment of each person. However, this hierarchy of love, where God is loved above all others, actually demands and protects the love that we owe to our neighbor, to all other human persons in this world. First of all, loving God above all others is simply based upon the object of love itself – what do we love when we love someone? We love his or her goodness; that is what draws our love. To love is simply to be drawn to the goodness of another and to desire even greater goodness for that same person.
But if love is drawn to Goodness, then clearly we must love God above all else. For God alone is good through and through, the absolute Goodness, and in that sense no greater goodness is possible in the case of God. So our love for God cannot consist in desiring even greater good in God Himself. On the other hand, we can desire greater good for all God’s creatures, and so the love of God is complete only if we also desire the maximum good for God’s creatures. In the case of our fellow man, that means desiring that every person reach their fulfillment in God. Thus loving God above all else demands that we love our neighbor as our self, and therefore that we desire the salvation of every person, their total happiness in God, just as we desire that for ourselves.
But how does this hierarchy in the great commandment of love protect our love for our neighbor in the practical order as well as demand it? Very often we find it difficult to know for sure what love requires toward our neighbor, and people often do evil toward their neighbor even while motivated by love. Love always desires good for the beloved, but our minds, even while motivated by love, simply do not always correctly judge what is good for the person and what is evil. Only God knows infallibly what is good for the human person in every situation, and he reveals this to us through the commandments and through the moral teaching of Jesus and His Church, his teaching instrument in time, through which Jesus continues to reveal the judgment of God concerning what is good or evil for man.
Thus, if we love God above all things, and we love him with our whole mind, that requires us to subject our judgment about good and evil to God’s judgment. And God has not left us without access to his mind – that is why He sent His Son Jesus, and that is why Jesus sent his Church, to teach us the mind and will of God. So, if I really love my neighbor, I will follow God’s judgment as to what is good for my neighbor or evil for my neighbor, not my own opinion or even my neighbor’s, nor society’s unstable moral opinions. If I follow my private judgment when it conflicts with God’s, then I do not love God above all things, because I love my own mind more than God’s will. And in the end, my judgment may well be false, and I will do harm to my neighbor in the name of love.
There are so many examples of this today, but so-called assisted suicide makes this issue especially clear. My neighbor is suffering and asks me to assist in that person’s suicide. But if God Is Lord, then God is the Lord of Life, and man has no right to take his own life, and in doing so denies that God is Lord, that God is God. God has condemned suicide, and until recently that has been reflected in the civil laws of every state in this union. To assist a person to take his own life is to very possibly assist that person in going before God guilty of serious sin, and if that is true, the person will end up in Hell for all Eternity.
You may say that the person may be invincibly ignorant of the law of God on suicide. That is hard to imagine since this law has been so clearly revealed that it ended up being enforced even in the civil law of most nations! But regardless, you do not know how God will judge that person, but you do know that suicide is objectively a rejection of God’s will and therefore of God – and if the person is judged responsible for that sin by God, you will have helped that person lose his or her soul for all eternity. Love is always in danger of mistaking good for evil when we fail to love God above all things by following His judgment in all things. I cannot truly love my neighbor if I would risk his or her eternal salvation by my cooperation in any act of that person which is objectively, seriously contrary to God’s law. And this is so precisely because we do not how God will judge that person’s responsibility for the objectively sinful act, which means it is possible the person will face eternal condemnation. Our task is to convince that person to respect God’s law, and to trust in God as his greatest good, far outweighing any evil he might suffer in this world. All of this, of course, applies to voting in favor of a right to suicide not matter what society calls it.
The scribe in today’s Gospel was not far from the Kingdom of God, but he was not yet there even though he believed that this commandment of love was man’s supreme duty. He was not there because he did not yet believe that Jesus himself is the fulfillment of that law of love, and the final word of God as to what that law demands. Jesus died for the Love of His Father and his neighbor. Supernatural Love will suffer anything rather than deviate from the Father’s will, and the Father’s judgment as to what is good for our self and for our neighbor. The Father judged that the good of our salvation should be made possible by the death of His own son as the hands of sinners. Jesus suffered death for our good rather than deviate from that judgment of the Father.
At times, love for God will demand our own suffering rather than doing anything that would contradict God’s will. It always demands that we refuse to judge good and evil in a way contrary to God’s judgment of what love demands of us in relation to our neighbor. That may well cause us to be misunderstood, and lead others to question our love. But that is what loving God above all, with all our mind and heart demands, and that is what true love of neighbor demands. The law of love is not a rejection, but a fulfillment of the laws of the Decalogue, and an acceptance of the teachings of Christ and His Church as the will of God.